Don’t Blame the Chinese Horseshoe Bat for the Coronavirus — Blame Us

It’s not this little bug-eater’s fault he’s developed one of the world’s strongest immune systems. Let’s hear him out.

This week, Silica Mag is back on the critter beat with a quick update on one of the week’s most infamous animals. Yes, we’re talking about bats, which made dozens of headlines after epidemiologists held them responsible for recent outbreaks of the coronavirus that have us all fearing for the next big pandemic. Fun!

As The New York Times reports, while biologists on the ground say they still aren’t entirely sure what the source of the new Wuhan strain of the coronavirus is, there’s a lot of evidence pointing to one species of bat — specifically, the Chinese horseshoe bat, a common species of insectivorous bats found all over Asia.

For those familiar with zoonotic diseases, this isn’t the first time our encroachment on our animal friends has led to deadly consequences. As some might remember, these little bug-eaters are also thought to be responsible for the SARS epidemic back in 2002 and 2003. Its cousins in Africa have also been linked to recent outbreaks of Ebola and Nipah in Africa, as well as 60 other human-infecting viruses that now appear to be crossing the species divide faster than ever.

While we won’t get into the scare-mongering, sometimes xenophobic wet market nonsense that other news sources are disseminating, we will note that there’s something fascinating to behold in the science of how the meager bat has become one of this week’s biggest villains.

“Their tolerance of viruses, which surpasses that of other mammals is one of their many distinctive qualities,” writes NYT science reporter James Gorman, who notes in his reporting that compared to other mammals, no other species (not even rats) has such a propensity for carrying disease than the bat. “They are the only flying mammals, they devour disease-carrying insects by the ton, and they are essential to the pollination of many fruits like bananas, avocados, and mangoes.”

According to researchers, the reason for this is many-fold. For example, a 2018 paper in Cell Host and Microbe suggested it might be that bats’ ability to fly — an incredible rarity in the mammalian world — may have ultimately damaged bats bodies so much over time that it weakened their overall inflammatory response, making them far more hardy to DNA-damaging diseases, viruses, and illnesses that make other animals (and humans) fall terribly ill.

Bats also have remarkable longevity compared to other small creatures, with some species living up to 40 years. Add in their hyper-crowded, hyper-communal living situations, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for evolving one of the world’s strongest immune systems.

As for how to prevent future outbreaks caused by bats (or any other animal, for that matter) is tricky. Note that we’re the ones encroaching on their territory — not the other way around — which means these outbreaks are likely to become more common over time. However, understanding more about these flying, echo-locative, hardy little disease poopers might one day bring us closer to living in harmony with nature, which is truly necessary if we all want to survive.

Read more on The New York Times.